Senate passes stopgap budget and aid for Syrian rebels, then quits until after elections

By William Douglas

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Moving quickly on the heels of the House of Representatives, the Senate grudgingly approved a measure Thursday that gives President Barack Obama the authority to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State and provides funding to keep the federal government open through mid-December.

Like their House counterparts, several senators questioned the viability of Obama’s strategy. They also complained that with the short-term budget bill, lawmakers were once again kicking serious budgetary questions down the legislative calendar.

But with the Islamic State’s threat rising and control of the Senate up for grabs, senators swallowed their concerns and voted 78-22 for the overall budget bill before heading home to campaign in the final weeks before November’s elections. There was no separate vote on the training of Syrian rebels.

“It is not perfect, that’s for sure,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the bill. “But no legislation is.”

The narrowly crafted Syria language gives Obama the power to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels against the Islamic State. The authorization expires in mid-December, dovetailing with the budget bill’s expiration date.

Administration officials must report to Congress on the progress of the strategy and how it fits into a larger plan to combat the Islamic State. The measure contains language that prevents Obama from expanding the training strategy into a battle that involves U.S. troops without congressional approval.

The provision doesn’t include any of the $500 million Obama has requested, though it allows the Pentagon to submit requests to Congress to redirect money and allows the State Department to accept foreign contributions.

Obama called it a victory nonetheless.

“The House and the Senate have now voted to support a key element of our strategy,” he said Thursday evening. “The strong bipartisan support in Congress for this new training effort shows the world that Americans are united in confronting the threat from (the Islamic State), which has slaughtered so many innocent civilians.”

The overall budget bill will continue to fund federal government programs and services at its current rate of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11 and extends the life of the federal Export-Import Bank, which was set to expire Sept. 30, through June 2015.

How Florida senators voted: funding, training Syrian rebels

The Senate steamed toward final congressional approval Thursday of President Barack Obama's request to train Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants in the Middle East. The legislation also provides funding for the government after the end of the budget year on Sept. 30, eliminating any threat of a shutdown in the run-up to November elections for a new House and control of the Senate. The House approved the bill on Wednesday.

Both Florida’s two senators voted to approve the measure:

Said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday:

I believe that the president has the constitutional authority to strike ISIS in Syria, as he already has in Northern Iraq, and that's under his constitutional duty as commander-in-chief. But this is not going to be a strike for a few days, this is going to be a long effort to degrade and defeat — to use the president's words — this threat to America.

Said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaking on the Senate floor:

“I say this to you without a shadow of a doubt, as I said weeks ago: if we do not confront and defeat ISIL now, we will have to do so later. And it will take a lot longer, it will be much costlier and even more painful. We will confront ISIL one way or the other, and I believe the sooner the better. What we are asked to do now is approve funding to arm moderate rebel elements in Syria. There is no guarantee of success. There is none. But there is a guarantee of failure if we do not even try. And try we must. For one fundamental reason – if we fail to approve this, the nations of that region will say that America’s not truly engaged, that Americans are willing to talk about this, but are not willing to do anything about it.

“And so despite my concerns about the underlying bill and the budgeting that it entails, I will support this resolution. Because I think it’s in the best interest of our national security.”